My strong admiration for actor James McAvoy goes up a notch when he joins our Zoom call using the screen name “Mr Fantastico”. Looks like he’s in a hotel room. “Nah, I’m home. We just painted our ceiling to look like a hotel,” the 43-year-old explains in his still broad Glasgow accent.
After we talk, McAvoy flies to Rome for a four-day stint playing Pontius Pilate in Jeymes Samuels’ film The Book of Clarence. This commitment forced him to miss Sunday’s 66e Evening Standard Theater Awards in association with Garrard at the Ivy, where he was nominated Best Actor for his stunning performance in Jamie Lloyd’s production of Cyrano de Bergerac. “I’m disgusted not to be here,” he said.
On the night, fellow Sheridan Smith read out a message he had sent to event attendees, “Drink something toxic and dance.”
McAvoy has won the award once before, in 2015 for his explosive performance as the Earl of Gurney in Peter Barnes’ The Ruling Class, also directed by Lloyd. He is delighted and a little surprised to win again for Cyrano. “I’ve been living with this show since 2019, before the pandemic — a different version of myself, a different decade,” he says, “and I didn’t think we’d be eligible.”
Cyrano first opened to five-star reviews at the Playhouse Theater in 2019. “We had a young cast, a lot of people debuting and we were all going to be able to cross the Atlantic and take it to New York, woo woo!” McAvoy recalls, “Then it got swept away, like so many things, by the pandemic. But we decided we were going to do it if the theater ever came back – and for a long time, that was a big ‘if.’
Cyrano headed to the Brooklyn Academy of Music this year, following a second London tour at the Pinter Theater and a week in McAvoy’s hometown of Glasgow (with the 2020 and 2021 Standard Awards having been cancelled, this year’s judging panel has decided that such a remarkable spectacle deserved consideration for the Pinter race).
“Jamie felt responsible, like many theater makers, to come back strong,” adds McAvoy. “A tried and true hit that had a bit of a movie buff in it, maybe helped people get back to the theater a bit…” He says this with remarkable coyness.
Radically reworked by Martin Crimp to merge Edmond Rostand’s 17e Chivalrous turn of the century with contemporary rap, Cyrano was brought to life by Lloyd with a physically, ethnically and neurologically diverse cast in everyday clothes on a nearly bare stage. McAvoy avoided the usual prosthetic trunk: “I said to Jamie, uh, isn’t this about a guy with a big nose? He said, in the first act maybe, but the rest is about a guy who hates himself.
The decision proved to be as liberating as the minimalist staging. McAvoy says he has rarely felt such a close and direct connection with an audience, and tells me that his cousin, who was unfamiliar with the play and saw it in Glasgow, was deeply upset by the abuse Cyrano suffered against him. -even and others.
The son of a Catholic psychiatric nurse and a builder father, from whom he is estranged, McAvoy planned to enter the priesthood as a boy. “I really wanted to travel the world and thought maybe becoming a missionary would be a good way to do that,” he says. “I don’t carry the label of poverty and I don’t talk about it all the time, but it probably speaks to my lack of opportunity that I’ve gone to extremes like thinking about becoming a fucking priest, so I might travel.
Instead, as a teenager he began acting, appearing in The Bill and a short film, but had he not entered drama school at the Royal Conservatory of Scotland (then known as name of the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama), he would join the navy.
Although his early CV was peppered with stage roles, he had his first real success on TV in Paul Abbott’s Shameless (where he and Duff met), then in a series of increasingly heavy film roles. , including The Last King of Scotland, Atonement, Becoming Jane. , and as Professor Xavier in the rebooted X-Men movies. He was previously married to fellow actress Anne-Marie Duff, with whom he has a son, and is now married to Lisa Liberati. Although very private about his family life, during our conversation he refers to his “kids” and confirms that there is a new McAvoy in town.
Lloyd seems to be the only director McAvoy cares to work with on stage now: their partnership began the year before he joined the Marvel Universe. “It’s partly the way things are between on-screen jobs, but also he keeps giving me the most interesting things,” McAvoy says.
“I’ve known Jamie since 2010 when we did Three Days of Rain [by Richard Greenberg, at the Apollo]and he is constantly pursuing something more theatrical, something purer, something clearer.
They put together a beautiful Macbeth together in 2013 with Clare Foy in the role of Lady Macbeth, then The Ruling Class. But Cyrano was another order of experience, with Lloyd and Crimp rigorously “removing everything but words and performance, even gesture and movement. It’s great to receive this award, but it’s really thanks to them and the bravery of their production.
Lloyd himself describes McAvoy as “simply the greatest actor of our generation and an incredible collaborator. When you work with someone on a number of projects, a kind of shorthand develops. If you ask it to do something, it does. And he gets very excited exploring different ways of looking at things. You can really fly and explore new ideas.
McAvoy speaks passionately about the satisfaction he derives from theater as opposed to screen roles, but his stage appearances will remain an occasional pleasure. “It’s hard to do theater in a row because you can’t put your kids to bed for about a year, so I won’t be accelerating the number of things I do,” he says.
“It will only be every two years, unfortunately.” At 43, however, and a father of two who’s already gone through several major phases of his career — child star, romantic lead, action hero, classic star — he’s picky about all his jobs. “I’m looking for the chance to tell the story, the opportunity to drive the narrative, to do it in a surprising way,” he says. “I seek conflict.”
He doesn’t talk about it, but he also nearly died in 2017, after contracting sarcoidosis, where patches of swollen tissue develop in the body. “The condition is gone now, as it is in some cases,” he says, “but they botched the biopsy to check it wasn’t cancer and my lungs collapsed. It hit me. There were a few good years where I just felt like the wind had been pulled out of my sails.
He chuckled, realizing what he just said. “My vitality was slightly dulled and it was quite difficult because I am an energetic and forward-thinking person.” With rest, exercise and (he concedes) a subconscious awareness of his mortality, he is now back to himself.
Although still a proud Scot, he has lived in London for 20 years. “That’s where I grew up, you know,” he says. “It’s a tough city. It has everything you could want, but you have to fight for it, and I like that. If you’ve done well here and managed to live here for 20 years, I really feel like you own your place in the city.
This brings us back to the Evening Standard Theater Awards, which this year recognized the most diverse group of winners – in terms of gender, ethnicity and class – of all time.
“It’s like the industry is taking responsibility,” he says. “It’s not changed but it’s changing for the better, and so we will have stories told for and by and about the society in which we actually live. I am proud to be part of it.
“Is there still work to do?” he continues: “Absolutely. Are we all responsible for this? Yes. But I think it’s better. And with that, Mr. Fantastico leaves the Zoom.
The 66th Evening Standard Theater Awards in association with Garrard took place on Sunday, December 10; the winners were transported there in durable style through the snow by Polestar